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Sports >  Outdoors

Conservation groups ask federal judge to halt salmon plan

A chinook salmon, below, and a steelhead move through the fish ladder at the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River in Washington state during October 2016.  (Jesse Tinsley)
A chinook salmon, below, and a steelhead move through the fish ladder at the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River in Washington state during October 2016. (Jesse Tinsley)
By Eric Barker Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON – Salmon and steelhead advocates returned to court to again ask a federal judge to overturn the government’s plan to operate dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers in a way that pushes the fish closer to extinction.

The National Wildlife Federation and several other conservation groups, including Idaho Rivers United and the Idaho Conservation League, contend a biological opinion issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and associated documents and decisions by the Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and Bonneville Power Administration violate the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.

Last year, the agencies completed an environmental impact statement ordered by Judge Michael Simon of Portland after he found the government’s 2014 plan to be illegal. In it, the agencies dismissed the idea of breaching the four lower Snake River dams as too costly while also admitting that dam removal offered the fish the best chance of recovery. Instead, the agencies chose a plan built largely on spilling water at the dams to help speed juvenile salmon and steelhead downstream during their migration to the Pacific Ocean.

Todd True, the lead EarthJustice attorney representing the plaintiffs, said the groups felt forced to file.

“We’d rather be working together – with tribes, scientists, fishing businesses, farmers, freight industry and our elected leaders in Congress – to develop a comprehensive solution that includes restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River,” True said. “But the Trump administration ignored the science and the voices of hundreds of thousands in the Pacific Northwest, rubber-stamping a plan that yet again fails to take the actions necessary to protect salmon and steelhead.”

Simon, and before him the late Judge James Redden, overturned a string of the government’s plans to balance operation of the Snake and Columbia rivers hydropower system with the needs of endangered salmon and steelhead, including four species that return to the Snake River in Idaho and Eastern Washington.

Many salmon advocates and scientists view dam breaching as the best and likely only way to recover the fish. The dams and the reservoirs they create slow the migration of juvenile fish, expose them to increased predation and elevated water temperatures and inflict physical harm to the young fish that can kill them outright or weaken them to the point that many don’t survive once they reach salt water.

But dam removal would end the use of the lower Snake River as a shipping channel between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities in Washington, reduce the amount of low-carbon energy produced by the federal hydroelectric system and make irrigation more expensive for farmers near Ice Harbor Dam. The federal agencies said breaching would be too expensive and require congressional action. Instead, they will spill water over the dams during the spring migration but reserve the right to temporarily curtail those operations and instead produce power when energy demand and prices are high.

The conservation groups argue in the lawsuit filed in Simon’s court Tuesday that the latest plan is no better and in some ways worse than the previous efforts. Among the dozens of arguments in the complaint, they contend the plan contains faulty scientific analysis, fails to adequately address perils the fish face because of climate change, offers vague and uncertain actions the government will take to help the fish, fails to address how the dams affect endangered Puget Sound orcas and does not properly consider the economic benefits of recovered salmon and steelhead.

“The state of Idaho, our river communities and our fish are all failed by this plan,” said Nic Nelson, executive director of Idaho Rivers United.

“Not only does this (plan) fail to meet the judicial mandate to recover salmon, it undermines all of the great work being done regionally to provide real solutions to the rapid extirpation of Snake River salmon and steelhead.”

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